Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks. The wheel, as though excited by its sudden liberty, bounced twice not very high and once very high and hit their windshield with a damp crack. “Christ!” Donk called out from the backseat. The driver, much too late, wrenched on the steering wheel, and they fishtailed and then spun out into the dunes alongside the road. Against one of the higher sandbanks the Corolla slammed to a dusty halt. Sand as soft and pale as flour poured into the partially open windows. The shattered but still intact windshield sagged like netting. After a moment Donk touched his forehead, his eyebrow bristles as tender as split stitches. Thin, watery blood streaked down his fingers.
From the front passenger seat Graves asked if everyone—Donk, Hassan, the driver—was all right. No one spoke. Graves sighed. “Glad to hear it.” He gave his dune-pinned door two small, impotent outward pushes, then spent the next few moments staring out the splintery windshield. The air-freshener canister that had been suckered to the windshield lay quietly frothing lilac-scented foam in Graves’s lap. The spun-around Corolla now faced Kunduz, the city they had been trying to escape. “I’m glad I’m not a superstitious man,” Graves said at last. The driver’s hands were still gripped around the steering wheel.
Donk climbed out on the Corolla’s open side, cupping his throbbing eye socket and leaning forward, watching his blood patter onto the sand in perfect red globules. He did not have the faintest idea what he had struck his head against until Hassan, wincing and rubbing his shoulder, muscled his way out of the car behind him. Hassan looked at Donk and shrug-smiled, his eyes rimmed with such a fine black line they looked as if they had been Maybellined. His solid belly filled the stretched sack of his maroon cardigan sweater, and his powder-blue shalwar khameez—the billowy national pants of Afghanistan, draped front and back with a flap of cloth that resembled an untied apron—were splattered with Donk’s blood. The whole effect gave Hassan an emergency-room air. Donk did not return Hassan’s smile. The night before, in Kunduz, after having a bite of Spam and stale brie in the rented compound of an Agence France Presse correspondent, Donk and Graves found their hotel room had been robbed. Graves had lost many personal items, a few hundred dollars, and his laptop, while Donk had parted with virtually all of his photographic equipment, including an irreplaceably good wide lens he had purchased in London on the way over. Hassan, charged with watching the room while they were out, claimed to have abandoned his sentry duties only once, for five minutes, to go to the bathroom. He had been greatly depressed since the robbery. Donk was fairly certain Hassan had robbed them.
Donk fastened around his head the white scarf he had picked up in Kunduz’s bazaar. Afghan men tended to wear their scarves atop their heads in vaguely muffin-shaped bundles or around their necks with aviator flair. Afghanistan’s troublous Arab guests, on the other hand, were said to tie the scarves around their skulls with baldness-mimicking tightness, the hem just millimeters above their eyes while the scarf’s tasseled remainder trailed down their spines. This was called “terrorist style,” and Donk adopted it now. It was the only way he could think to keep the blood out of his eyes. He also sort of liked how it looked.
“Hassan,” Graves snapped as he climbed out of the Corolla. It was an order, and Graves—a tall, thin Brit with an illusionless, razor-burned face—had a voice seemingly engineered to give orders. He had thick brown hair and the ruined teeth of a man who had spent a large amount of time in the unfluoridated parts of the world. His hands were as filthy as the long sleeves of his white thermal underwear top, though his big fingernails seemed as bright and smooth as shells. Graves made his way to the truck, twenty yards down the road and askew on its three remaining wheels. He glanced down at the tire, innocently at rest in the middle of the highway, that had shattered the Corolla’s windshield. Donk noted that Graves looked as stately as was imaginable for a sick man wearing one of those silly war-reporter khaki vests and red Chuck Taylor All Stars. Hassan rushed to catch up to him, as Graves had not waited.
This left Donk and the driver, a kind of bear-man miracle with moist brown eyes and a beard it was hard to imagine he had not been born with, to have a look under the Corolla and assess the damage. Monoglots both, they could do little better than exchange artfully inflected grunts. Nothing seemed visibly wrong. The axle, for instance, was not bent, which had been Donk’s greatest fear. But the steering wheel refused to budge, and the ignition responded to the driver’s twist with a click.
“Hmn,” Donk consoled him.
“Mmn,” the driver agreed.
Donk looked over at Graves, who was speaking through Hassan to the truck’s stranded driver. Graves was nodding with exquisitely false patience as the curly-haired boy, who looked no older than twenty, grasped his head with both hands and then waved his arms around at the desert in huge gestures of innocence. Bursts of dune-skimmed sand whistled across the three of them. The bed of the boy’s truck was piled ten-deep with white bags of internationally donated wheat. His truck, Donk noticed, was not marked with any aid group’s peaceable ideogram.
It had been a strange morning, even by Donk’s standards. A few hours ago some “nasties,” as Graves called them, had appeared on the outskirts of Kunduz, though they were supposed to have been driven out of the area a week ago. In fact, they were supposed to have been surrendering. Graves and Donk had jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs into the still-dark autumn morning air to see what they could see, hopping around barefoot on the frigid concrete. The battle was still far away, the small, faint pops of gunfire sounding as dry as firecrackers. It appeared that, after some desultory return fire, Kunduz’s commander called in an American air strike. The great birds appeared with vengeful instantaneousness and screamed across the city sky. The sound was terrific, atmosphere-shredding, and then they were gone. The horizon, a few moments later, burped up great dust bulbs. But within the hour the gunfire had moved closer. The well-armed defenders of Kunduz had been scrambling everywhere as Donk and Graves packed up what little remained of their gear into this hastily arranged taxi and sped out of town to the more securely liberated city of Mazar.
“Bloody fool,” Graves said now, when he walked back over to Donk. He was speaking of the curly-haired boy.
“Call him a wog if it makes you feel better,” Donk said. “I don’t mind.”
Graves cast a quick look back at the boy, now squatting beside his hobbled truck and chatting with Hassan. “He’s stolen that wheat, you know.”
“Where was he going?”
“He won’t say.”
“What’s he doing now?”
“He’s going to wait here, he says. I told him there were nasties about. Bloody fool.” He looked at Donk, his face softened by sudden concern. “How’s that eye, then?”
Graves leaned into him optometristically, trying to inspect the messy wound through the do-rag. “Nasty,” he said finally, pulling away. “How many wars did you say you’ve covered?”
“Like war wars? Shooting wars? Or just wars?”
Graves nodded. “Shooting wars.”
“Not counting this one, three. But I’ve never been shot at until today.” While they were leaving Kunduz their Corolla had been hit with a short burst of Kalashnikov fire, though it was unclear whether the bullets were intended for them. The driver had used the strafe—it sounded and felt like a flurry of ball-peen hammer strikes—to establish a median traveling speed of 125 miles per hour. They had very nearly plowed over a little boy and his pony just before the city’s strangely empty westernmost checkpoint.
“And how did you find it?” Graves asked, as though genuinely curious.
“I found it like getting shot at.”
“That was rather how I found it.” Graves’s face pinched with fresh discomfort. He sighed, then seemed to go paler. His eyelids were sweaty. Graves stepped toward the Corolla searchingly, arms out, and lowered himself onto the bumper. “Think I need a rest.” The driver fetched a straw-covered red blanket from the Corolla and wrapped it around Graves’s shoulders.
They had been in Kunduz for two days when Donk noticed Graves tenderly hugging himself, no matter the heat thrown off by their hotel room’s oil-burning stove. His pallor grayed by the day, and soon he was having trouble seeing. Initially Graves had not been concerned. They went about their business of covering the war, Donk snapping Kunduz’s ragtag liberators and the dead-eyed prisoners locked up in one of the city’s old granaries, Graves reading ten hours’ worth of CNN updates a day on his laptop and worrying over his past, present, and future need to “file.” But his fever worsened, and he took a day’s bed rest while Donk toured Kunduz on foot with the city’s local commander, a happily brutal man who twice tried selling Donk a horse. When Donk returned to the hotel a few minutes before curfew that evening, he found Graves twisted up in his vomit-stained sheets, his pillow lying in a sad crumple across the room. “Deborah,” Graves had mumbled when Donk stirred him. “Listen. Turn the toaster? Please turn the toaster?”
Donk did not know Graves well. He had met him only ten days ago in Pyanj, Tajikistan, where many of the journalists were dovetailing stories by day and playing poker with worthless Tajik rubles by night. All were waiting for official clearance before venturing into Afghanistan. Graves—with an impatience typical of print journalists, their eyewitness being more perishable—elected to cast a few pearly incentives at the feet of the swinish border guards and asked Donk if he wanted to tag along. Donk, dispatched here by a British newsweekly, was under no real pressure to get in. His mandate was not one of breaking news but of chronicling the country’s demotic wartime realities. He did not even have a return flight booked. But he agreed.
Donk did not regret following Graves, even as he forced mefloquine hydrochloride tablets into his mouth, crusty with stomach ejecta, splashing in some canteen water to chase them. Graves, Donk was certain, had malaria, even though it was late November, a season at the outer edge of probability for contracting the disease, and even though he knew Graves had been taking mefloquine since October. The next day Donk convinced one of Kunduz’s aid workers—a grim, black Belgian—to give him a small cache of chloroquine phosphate pills, as mefloquine was mostly useful as a malaria preventative. The chloroquine seemed to help, and Graves, still as shivery as a foundling, had recommenced with his worries about filing a story. Graves was rather picky with his stories, seeking only narratives that presented this war in its least inspiring light. Unfortunately, Kunduz seemed fairly secure and the people weirdly grateful. Indeed, despite predictions of a long, bloody, province-by-province conflict, sixty percent of the country had fallen to American-led forces in this, the war’s fourth week.
After they were robbed Graves noted that his chloroquine pills were among the missing items. As the regrouped nasties waged this morning’s hopeless surprise counterattack, neither Donk nor Graves had the presence of mind to beg more pills before they left, though Donk was fairly certain the aid workers would have pulled out of Kunduz too. That one could simply leave a firefight and come back a bit later was one of the odder things about this shadowy war. Roads were safe one day, suicide the next. Warlords thought to be relatively trustworthy one week were reported to have personally overseen the meticulous looting of an aid-group warehouse the next. All of this seemed designed to prevent anyone from actually fighting. From the little Donk had seen and heard, gun battles here seemed founded upon one’s ability to spray bullets blindly around rocks and walls and then beat a quick, spectacular retreat.
“How do you feel?” Donk asked Graves now.
Graves, still sitting on the bumper, flashed his ruined teeth. The dirty wind had given his eyes a teary under-rim. “How do I look?”
“Fading. We need to get you somewhere.”
Graves looked down, angrily blinking away his eyes’ moisture. “Where are we, anyway?”
“About an hour outside Kunduz.”
“That’s another hour from Mazar?”
Graves glanced around, but the dunes were too high to see anything but the road, and the road was too straight to reveal anything but the dunes. “Not far enough, I imagine.”
“We could hitch. Someone is bound to be along.”
“Someone is. Who is the problem.”
“You don’t think the poor devils would use roads, for God’s sake, do you? This far north? They’d be bombed within minutes.”
“I have no idea.”
With shiatsu delicacy Graves massaged his face with his fingertips. A bright bracelet of untanned flesh encircled his wrist. Graves’s watch, too, had been stolen. His hands fell into his lap then, and he sighed. “I hope you’re not worried, Duncan.”
Donk decided not to remind Graves, for what would have been the fortieth time, that he preferred to be called Donk. The nickname—a diminutive form of donkey—dated to one of the boyhood camping trips he and his father and older brother, Jason, used to take every year in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If he had never especially liked the name, he had come to understand himself through its drab prism. DONK ST. PIERRE was stamped in raised black type upon his ivory business card; it was the name above which his photographs were today published. People often mistook his work for that of some Flemish eccentric. When colleagues first met him, something Donk called The Moment inescapably came to pass. Faced not with a tall, spectral, chain-smoking European but a short, overweight midwesterner with frizzy black hair and childishly small hands, their smiles faded, their eyes crumpled, and a discreet little sound died just past their glottis. “I’m not worried,” Donk said. “I’ll be even less worried when we figure out where we’re going.”
Graves stared at Donk as though weighing him in some crucial balance. “You seemed rather jittery in Pyanj. Wasn’t sure you’d be up to this.”
When Donk said nothing, Graves stood, listing momentarily before he steadied himself against the Corolla with one hand. Hassan loped back over to them, grinning beneath the pressure of one of his patented “discoveries,” always uncanny in their relative uselessness. “My friends, I have discovered that nearby there is village. Good village, the driver says. Safe, friendly village. We will be welcome there. He told for me the way. Seven, eight kilometers.”
Although this was much better information than Hassan was usually able to manage, Graves’s expression was sour. Sweat dripped off his nose, and he was breathing hard. Merely standing had wiped him out. “Did he tell you that, or did you ask him?”
Hassan seemed puzzled. “I ask-ed him. Why?”
“Because, Hassan, information is only as reliable as the question that creates it.”
“Mister Graves, I am not understanding you.”
“He’s saying,” Donk said, “that our wheat-stealing friend may be telling us to go somewhere we shouldn’t.”
Hassan looked at them both in horror. “My friends, no. This is not possible. He is good man. And we are gracious, hospitable people here. We would never—”
Graves, cruelly, was ignoring this. “How’s the car?”
Donk shook his head. “Wheel won’t turn, engine won’t start. Back wheels are buried in sand. And there’s the windshield issue. Other than that, it’s ready to go.”
Graves walked out into the middle of the highway, drawing the blanket up over his head. Each end of the road streaked off into a troubling desert nothingness and appeared to tunnel into the horizon itself. It was before noon in northern Afghanistan, and the country felt as empty and skull-white as a moon. Not our familiar moon but another, harder, stranger moon. Above, the clouds were like little white bubbles of soap that had been incompletely sponged off the hard slate of the blue morning sky. Donk was compelled to wonder if nothingness and trouble were not, in fact, indistinguishable. Graves marched back over to the Corolla and savagely yanked his duffle from the front seat. “We walk to this village, then.”
When it became apparent to the driver that they were leaving, he spoke up, clearly agitated. Hassan translated. “He says he won’t leave his car.”
“I don’t blame him,” Graves said, and peeled off three twenties to pay the man.
After leaving the main highway they walked along a scarred, inattentively paved road toward the village Hassan had promised was only six or seven, or was it eleven, kilometers away. Human Conflict, Donk thought, rather abstractly. It was one of his lively but undisciplined mind’s fascinations. It differed from land to land, as faces differed. But the basic elements (ears, nose, mouth; aid workers, chaos, exhilaration) were always the same. It was the one thing that survived every era, every philosophy, the one legacy each civilization surrendered to the next. For Donk, Human Conflict was curiously life-affirming, based as it was on avoiding death—indeed, on inflicting death preemptively on others. He loved Human Conflict not as an ideal but as a milieu, a state of mind one absorbed but was not absorbed by, the crucial difference between combatants and non-. His love of Human Conflict was as unapologetic as it was without nuance. He simply enjoyed it. “Duncan,” a therapist had once asked him, “have you ever heard of the term chronic habitual suicide’?” Donk never saw that therapist, or any other, again.
He kicked from his path a billiard-ball-sized chunk of concrete. How was it that these people, the Afghans, could, for two hundred years, hold off or successfully evade several of the world’s most go-getting empires and not find it within themselves to pave a fucking road? And yet somehow Afghanistan was, at least for the time being, the world’s most significant place. Human Conflict had a way of doing that too. He remembered back two weeks ago to a press conference in the Presidential Palace in Tashkent, the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan, where the fragrant, rested-looking journalists who had arrived with the American Secretary of State had surrounded him. Donk had taken his establishing shots of the Secretary—looking determined and unusually Vulcan behind his press-conference podium—and quickly withdrawn. In one of the palace’s uninhabited corners he found a splendid globe as large as an underwater mine, all of its countries’ names in Cyrillic. Central Asia was turned out toward the room; North America faced the wall. Seeing the planet displayed from that strange side had seemed to Donk as mistaken as an upside-down letter. But it was not wrong. That globe was in fact perfectly accurate.
Up ahead, Graves was walking more slowly now, almost shuffling. Donk was allowing Graves the lead largely because Graves needed the lead. He was one of those rare people one did not actually mind seeing take charge. But Graves, wrapped in his red blanket, looked little better than a confused pensioner. The sun momentarily withdrew behind one of the bigger bubbly cloud formations. The temperature dropped with shocking immediacy, the air suddenly as sharp as angel hair and the morning light going blotted and cottony. Donk watched Graves’s shoelaces come slowly and then floppily untied. For some reason Donk was too embarrassed for Graves to say anything.
“Mister Donk,” Hassan said quietly, drawing beside him. “Is Mister Graves all right?”
Donk managed a weak, testy smile. “Mister Graves is fine.”
Hassan nodded. “May I, Mister Donk, ask you questions?”
“Where were you born in America?”
“Near the Sea of Tranquility.”
“I ask, what is your favorite food?”
“American women are very beautiful, they say. They say too they have much love.”
“That’s mostly true. One should only sleep with beautiful women, even though they have the least love. Write that down. With women it’s all confidence, Hassan. Write that down, too. You might look at me and think, But this is a fat man! And it’s true. But I grow on people. You’re not writing.”
“I hear that American women make many demands. Not like Afghan women.”
“Did you steal my cameras?”
“Mister Donk! No!”
“That’s not nice, you know,” Graves said suddenly, glancing back. “Teasing the boy like that.”
“I was wondering when I’d get your attention.”
“Leave the boy alone, Duncan. He’s dealt with enough bad information to last his entire lifetime.”
“I am not a boy,” Hassan said suddenly.
“Don’t listen to him,” Graves said to Hassan. “War’s made Mister Duncan barmy.”
“How are you feeling?” Donk asked Graves. “Any better?”
Graves dropped his eyes to his open palm. “I was just checking my cell phone again. Nothing.” Some enigma of telecommunications had prevented his Nokia from functioning the moment they crossed into Afghanistan. He absently tried to put away the phone but missed his pocket. Graves stopped and stared at the Nokia, a plastic purple amethyst half buried in the sand. Donk scooped it up and handed it back to Graves, who nodded distantly. Suddenly the sky filled with a deep, nearly divine roar. Their three heads simultaneously tipped back. Nothing. American F/A-18s and F-14s were somewhere cutting through that high blue, releasing satellite- and laser-guided bombs or returning from dropping bombs or looking for new places to drop bombs. Graves shook his head, quick and hard, as though struggling to believe that these jets really existed. Only after the roar faded did they push on, all of them now walking Wizard-of-Oz abreast. Graves still seemed angry. “Sometimes,” he said, “I wonder if all the oil companies and the American military purposefully create these fucking crises to justify launching all those pretty missiles and dropping all these dreadful expensive bombs. Air Force. Error Farce is more like it.”
“Coalition troops,” Donk reminded him. “Those could be British jets.”
“Somehow, Duncan, I doubt that.”
Donk swigged from his canteen and wiped his mouth with his forearm. Talking politics with Graves was like being handed an armful of eels and then being asked to pretend that they were bunnies. He did not typically mind arguing, certainly not with a European, especially about the relative merits of the Land of the Red, White, and Blue. But Graves did not seem up to it. Donk settled on what he hoped was a slightly less divisive topic. “I wonder if they caught him yet.”
“They’re not going to catch him. The first private from Iowa to find him is going to push him up against a cave wall and blow a hole in his skull.” Graves seemed unable to take his eyes off his feet.
“Well,” Donk said, “let’s hope so.”
Graves looked over at him with lucid, gaunt-faced disappointment. He snorted and returned his gaze to his Converse All Stars, their red fabric so dusty they now appeared pink. “I can’t believe someone as educated as you would think that’s appropriate.”
“I’m not that educated.” Donk noted that Graves was practically panting, his mouth open and his tongue peeking over the fencepostsof his lower front teeth. Donk touched him on the shoulder. “Graves, hey. You really look like you need to rest again.”
Graves’s reaction was to nod, stop, and collapse into a rough squat, his legs folding beneath him at an ugly, painful-looking angle. Donk handed Graves his canteen while Hassan, standing nearby, mashed some raisins into his mouth. Graves watched a chewing Hassan watch him for a while, then closed his eyes. “My head,” he said. “Suddenly it’s splitting.”
“Malaria,” Donk said, kneeling next to him. “The symptoms are cyclical. Headaches. Fever. Chills. The sweats.”
“Yes,” Graves said heavily. “I know. Until the little buggers have clogged my blood vessels. Good-bye, vital organs.”
“Malaria isn’t fatal,” Donk said.
Graves shook his head. It occurred to Donk that Graves’s face, which tapered slightly at his temples and swelled again at his jawline, was shaped rather like a foot. “Untreated malaria is often fatal.”
Donk looked at him evenly. Graves’s thermal underwear top had soaked through. The sharp curlicues of grayish hair that swirled in the hollow of Graves’s throat sparkled with sweat. His skin was shinier than his eyes by quite a lot.
“Tell me something,” Graves said suddenly. “Why were you so nervous-seeming in Pyanj?”
Donk sighed. “Because nothing was happening. When nothing is happening I get jumpy.”
Graves nodded quickly. “I heard that about you.”
“That was a splendid shot, you know. The dead Tajik woman in Dushanbe. Brains still leaking from her head. You were there—what?—three minutes after she was shot? I wonder, though. You see her when you sleep, Duncan?”
It was probably Donk’s most famous photo, and his first real photo. The woman had been gunned down by Russian soldiers in the Tajik capital during one of the ugly, early paroxysms of street fighting. The Russians were in Tajikistan as peacekeepers after the Soviet collapse. Her death had been an accident, cross fire. She had known people were fighting on that street, but she walked down it anyway. You saw a lot of that in urban warfare. Chronic habitual suicide. In the photo her groceries were scattered beside her. One of her shoes was missing. A bit of her brain in the snow—just a bit, as though it were some glistening red fruit that had been spooned onto a bed of sugar—the rest shining wetly in a dark gash just above her ear. Her mouth was open. The photo had run on the wires all over the world and, from what he had heard, infuriated the Russian authorities, which explained the difficulty he always had getting into Russia. “I guess I’m not a very haunted person,” Donk said finally.
Graves was still smiling in a manner Donk recognized for its casual hopelessness. It was a war zone look. He had seen it on aid workers’ faces and correspondents’ faces but most often on soldiers’ faces. He had witnessed it, too, on the bearded faces of the POWs in Kunduz’s granary. Hassan had stopped eating his raisins and now watched the two men. He saw it too—perhaps because, Donk thought, it was his own default expression.
“But you love death, though, Duncan, yes?” Graves asked. “You have to. We all do. That’s why we do this, isn’t it?”
Donk began to pat himself down in search of something. He did not know what. He disliked such emotional nudism. He stopped pawing himself then and, feeling not a little caught out, traced his finger around in the sand. He made a peace sign, an easy shape to make. “Graves, I have learned not to generalize much about people in our line of work. The best combat photographer I ever saw was the mother of two children.”
Graves leaned forward slightly. “Do you know what Montaigne says?”
Donk neither moved nor breathed nor blinked. He heard Montaigne as Montane. “Can we walk again now?”
“Montaigne believed that death was easiest for those who thought about it the most. That way it was possible for a man to die resigned. The utility of living consists not in the length of days’—Montaigne said this—but in the use of time.’” Graves smiled again.
Donk decided to switch tacks. “Your Royal Illness,” he said cheerfully, getting to his feet, “I bid you, rise and walk.”
Graves merely sat there, shivering. His khaki vest looked two sizes too large for him, his hair no longer so thick-looking now that it was soaked to his skull, his snowy scalp showing through. Graves seemed reduced, as unsightly as a wet rodent. “Isn’t it strange,” he asked, “that in the midst of all this a man can die from a mosquito bite?”
Donk’s voice hardened: “A) Graves, give me a break. B) You’re not going to die.”
He laughed, lightly. “Today, no. Probably not.”
Donk had a thought. Deborah. Turn the toaster. This Deborah had to be Graves’s girlfriend or common-law wife. The man did not seem traditional husband material, somehow. “Graves, you need to walk. For Deborah.”
Graves’s puzzled face lifted up, and for a moment he looked his imperious self again. “Who the devil is Deborah?”
“Mister Donk—” Hassan said urgently, all but pulling on Donk’s sleeve.
“Graves,” Donk said, “I need you to get up.”
Graves lay back, alone in his pain, his skull finding the pillow of his duffle bag. “It’s my head, Duncan. I can’t bloody think.”
“Mister Donk!” Hassan said, but it was too late. The Jeep was approaching in a cloud of dust.
The owner of the Jeep was a thirtyish man named Ahktar. He wore blue jeans and a thin gray windbreaker and, as it happened, was only lightly armed, outwardly friendly, and claimed to live in the village they were headed toward. It was his “delight,” he said, to give them a ride. He spoke a little English. “My father,” he explained once they were moving along, “is chief of my village. I go to school in Mazar city, where I learn English at the English Club.”
“You’re a student now?” Donk asked, surprised. He found he could not stop looking at Ahktar’s thick mustache and toupee-shaped hair, both as impossibly black as photocopier ink.
He laughed. “No. Many years ago.”
Hassan and Donk bounced around on the Jeep’s stiff backseat as Ahktar took them momentarily off road, avoiding a dune that had drifted out into the highway. Jumper cables and needle-nose pliers jangled around at Donk’s feet. Graves was seatbelted in the shotgun position next to Ahktar, jostling in the inert manner of a crash-test dummy. Donk had yet to find the proper moment to ask why in Afghanistan the steering wheels were found on the right side of the car when everyone drove on the right side of the road. He thought he had found that moment now, but before he could ask, Ahktar hit a bump and Donk bashed his head against the vehicle’s metal roof. “Your Jeep,” Donk said, rubbing his head through his terrorist-style do-rag.
“Good Jeep!” Ahktar said.
“It’s a little … military-seeming.”
Ahktar looked at him in the rearview and shook his head. He had not heard him.
Donk leaned forward. “Military!” he shouted over the Jeep’s gruff, lawnmowerish engine. “It looks like you got it from the military!”
“Yes, yes,” Ahktar said, clearly humoring Donk. “I do!”
Donk leaned back. “This is a military Jeep, isn’t it?” he asked Hassan.
“His father maybe is warlord,” Hassan offered. “A good warlord!”
“Where are you from?” Ahktar asked Donk. “America?”
“That’s right,” Donk said.
“You know Lieutenant Marty?” Ahktar asked.
“Lieutenant Marty? No, I’m sorry. I don’t.”
Ahktar seemed disappointed. “Captain Herb?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
Ahktar reached into the side pocket of his gray coat and handed back to Donk a slip of paper with the names “Captain Herb” and “Lieutenant Marty” written on it, above what looked to be a pi-length satellite phone number. “Who are they?” Donk asked, handing the paper back.
“American soldiers,” he said happily. “We are friends now because I help them with some problems.”
“Is there a phone in your village? We could call them.”
“Sorry, no,” Ahktar apologized. “We have radios in my village, but nearest phone is Kunduz. I think today I will not go to Kunduz. They are having problems there.” He motioned toward Graves, who seemed to be napping. “From where in America is your friend?”
“I’m not an American,” Graves muttered with as much force as Donk had heard him manage all day. “I’m English.”
“What?” Ahktar asked, leaning toward him.
Graves’s eyes cracked open, dim and sticky like a newborn’s. “I’m English. From England. The people your countrymen butchered by the thousand a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Yes,” Ahktar said soberly, downshifting as they came to a hill. Something in the Jeep’s heater was rattling like a playing card in bicycle spokes. The waves of air surging from its vents went from warm, to hot, to freezing, to hot again. Ahktar drew up in his seat. “Here is village.”
As they plunged down the highway, hazy purple mountains materialized along the horizon. From the road’s rise Ahktar’s village appeared as an oblong smear of homes and buildings located just before a flattened area where the mountain range’s foothills began. Now came a new, low-ground terrain covered with scrabbly, drought-ruined grass. Along the road were dozens of wireless and long-knocked-over telephone poles. The Jeep rolled through the village’s outer checkpoint. Set back off the highway, every fifty yards, were some small stone bubble-domed homes, their chimneys smoking. They looked to Donk like prehistoric arboretums. None of it was like anything Donk had ever before seen in Central Asia. The virus of Soviet architecture—with its practically right angles, frail plaster, and monstrous frescoes—had not spread here. In the remoter villages of Tajikistan he had seen poverty to rival northern Afghanistan’s, but there the Soviet center had always held. In these never-mastered lands south of the former Soviet border, everything appeared old and shot up and grievously unattended. These discrepancies reminded Donk of what borders really meant, and what, for better or worse, they protected.
The road narrowed. The houses grew tighter, bigger, and slightly taller. The smoky air thickened, and soon they were rolling through Ahktar’s village proper. He saw a few shops crammed with junk—ammunition and foodstuffs and Aladdin’s lamp for all he knew—their window displays tiered backward like auditorium seating. Black, curly-haired goats hoofed at the dirt. Dogs slinked from doorway to doorway. Dark, hawk-nosed men wearing shirts with huge floppy sleeves waved at Ahktar. Most looked Tajik, and Donk cursed his laziness for not learning at least how to count in Tajik during all the months he had spent in Tajikistan. Walking roadside were beehive-shaped figures whose bedspread-white and sky-blue garments managed to hide even the basest suggestion of human form. These were women. Around their facial areas Donk noted narrow, tightly latticed eye slots. Children ran happily beside the Jeep, many holding pieces of taut string. “Kites,” Graves observed weakly. “They’re flying kites.”
Ahktar’s face turned prideful. “Now we are free, you see.” He pointed at the sky. Donk turned his head sideways and peered up out the window. Floating above the low buildings of Ahktar’s village were, indeed, scores of kites. Some were boxes, others quadrangular; some swooped and weaved like osprey; others hung eerily suspended.
Hassan looked up also. “We could not fly kites before,” he said quietly.
“Yes,” Donk said. “I know. Let freedom ring.”
“When they leave our village,” Ahktar—a bit of a present-tense addict, it seemed—went on, “we see many changes, such as shaving of the beards. The men used to grow big beards, of course very long, and they checked!”
Donk smiled, in spite of himself. “So you had a long beard?”
“Of course I have. I show you my pictures. It was a very long beard! Now everybody is free to shave or grow as their own choice.”
It seemed impious to point out that virtually every man momentarily centered within the frame of Donk’s murky plastic window had a griffin’s nest growing off his chin.
“When did they leave?” Donk asked. “Was it recently?”
“Oh, yes,” Ahktar said. “Very recently!” He cut the engine and rolled them down a rough dirt path through a part of the village that seemed a stone labyrinth. Sack-burdened peasants struggled past plain mud homes. Kunduz suddenly seemed a thriving desert metropolis in comparison. A high-walled compound guarded by two robed young men cradling Kalashnikovs stood where the path dwindled into a driveway. Inches before the compound’s metal gate the Jeep rolled to a soft stop. Ahktar climbed out of the vehicle, and Donk followed.
“What’s this?” Donk asked.
“My father’s house. I think you are in trouble. If so, he is the man you are wanting to talk to now.”
“We’re not in trouble,” Donk said. “My friend is sick. We just need to get him some medicine. We’re not in any trouble. Our car broke down.”
Ahktar lifted his hands, as though to ease Donk. “Yes, yes.” He moved toward the compound’s gate. “Come. Follow.”
“What about my friend?” But Donk turned to see that the guards were helping Graves from the Jeep and leading him toward Ahktar’s father’s compound. Surprisingly, Graves did not spurn their assistance or call them bloody Hindoos, but simply nodded and allowed his arms to find their way around each guard’s neck. They dragged him along, Graves’s legs serving as occasional, steadying kickstands. Hassan followed behind them, again nervously eating the raisins he kept in his pocket.
The large courtyard, its trees stripped naked by autumn, was patrolled by a dozen more men holding Kalashnikovs. They were decked out in the same crossbred battle dress as the soldiers Donk had seen loitering around Kunduz: camouflage pants so recently issued by the American military they still held their crease, shiny black boots, pakuls (the floppy national hat of Afghanistan), rather grandmotherly shawls, and shiny leather bandoliers. While most of the bandoliers were empty, a few of these irregulars had hung upon them three or four small bulb-like grenades. They looked a little like explosive human Christmas trees.
“Wait one moment, please,” Ahktar said, strolling across the courtyard and ducking into one of the many dark, doorless portals at its northern edge. The guards deposited Graves at a wooden table, and a minute later he was brought a pot of tea. Donk and Hassan, exchanging glances, walked over to Graves’s table and sat down in the cold, dim light. The soldiers on the compound’s periphery had yet to acknowledge them. They simply walked back and forth, back and forth, along the walls. Something about their manner, simultaneously alert and robotic, led Donk to guess that their weapons’ safeties were off. If Kalashnikovs even had safeties, which, come to think of it, Donk was fairly sure they did not.
“Nothing quite like a safe, friendly village,” Graves said in a thin voice. He sipped his tea, holding the round, handleless cup with both hands.
“How do you feel, Mister Graves?” Hassan asked eagerly.
“Hassan, I feel dreadful.”
“I’m sorry to hear this, Mister Graves.”
Graves set down the teacup and frowned. He looked at Hassan. “Be a lad and see if you can’t scare up some sugar for me, would you?”
Hassan stared at him, empty-faced.
Graves chuckled at the moment he seemed to recognize that the joke had not been funny. “I’m joking, Hassan.” He poured them both a cup of tea, and with a dramatic shiver quickly returned his arm to the warm, protective folds of his blanket. “Bloody freezing, isn’t it?”
“It’s actually a little warmer,” Donk said, turning from his untouched tea to see Ahktar and an older gentleman walking over to join them. Ahktar’s father was a towering man with a great, napkin-shaped cinnamon beard. He wore long, clean, white-yellow robes, his leather belt as broad as a cummerbund. Stuffed into this belt was what looked to be a .45. He was almost certainly Tajik and had large, crazed eyes and a nose that looked as hard as a sharp growth of bark. But he was smiling—something he did not do well, possibly for lack of practice. When he was close he threw open his arms and proclaimed something with an air of highly impersonal sympathy.
“My father says you are welcome,” Ahktar said. He did not much resemble his father; he was smaller, darker skinned. Doubtless Ahktar had a Pashtun mother around here somewhere. Donk could almost assemble her features. His father said something else, then nudged Ahktar to translate. “He says too that you are his great and protected guests.” His father spoke again, still with his effortful smile. “He says he is grateful for American soldiers and grateful for you American journalists, who care only of the truth.”
“English,” Graves said quietly.
“Whatever trouble you are in, my father will help you. It is his delight.”
“Ahktar,” Donk stepped in gently, “I told you. We’re not in any trouble. My friend here is very sick. Our car broke down. We were trying to go to Mazar. It’s very simple.” Ahktar said nothing. “Well,” Donk asked, “are you going to tell your father that?”
“I tell him that already.”
“Then can we go to Mazar from here?”
The muscles of Ahktar’s face tightened with regret. “Unfortunately, that is problem. No one is going to Mazar today.” He seemed suddenly to wish that he were not standing beside his father, who of course asked what had just been said. Ahktar quietly back-translated for him, obviously hoping that his pea of an answer would be smothered beneath the mattress of translation.
“Why can’t we go to Mazar?” Donk pressed.
At this mention of Mazar his father spoke again, angrily now. Ahktar nodded obediently. “My father wishes you to know you are safe here. Mazar is maybe not so safe.”
“But Mazar’s perfectly safe. It’s been safe for days. I have friends there.”
“My father is friendly with American soldiers in Mazar. Very friendly. And now we are helping them with some problems they are having in this region. We have authority for this. Unfortunately, Mazar’s Uzbek commander and my father are not very friendly, and there my father has no authority. Therefore it would be good for you to stay.”
After a pause, Donk spoke: “Who, may I ask, is your father?”
“My father is General Ismail Mohammed. He was very important part of United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, which fought against—”
“But Mazar’s commander was part of that same front.”
“Yes,” Ahktar said sadly. “Here is problem.”
Donk had met a suspiciously large number of generals during his time in Afghanistan and was not sure how to judge General Mohammed’s significance. Warlord? Ally? Both? He let it drop. “Do you have medicine here?”
Again Ahktar shrugged. “Some. But unfortunately it is with my father’s soldiers now. They are out taking care of some problems for Lieutenant Marty.”
“Is Lieutenant Marty with them?”
“Oh, no. Lieutenant Marty is in Mazar.”
“Where we can’t go.”
There really were, Donk had often thought, and thought again now, two kinds of people in the world: Chaos People and Order People. For Donk this was not a bit of cynical, Kiplingish wisdom to be doled out among fellow journalists in barren Inter-Continental barrooms. It was not meant in a condescending way. No judgment; it was a purely empirical matter. Chaos People, Order People. Anyone who doubted this had never tried to wait in line, board a plane, or get off a bus among Chaos People. The next necessary division of the world’s people took place along the lines of whether they actually knew what they were. The Japanese were Order People and knew it. Americans and English were Chaos People who thought they were Order People. The French were the worst thing to be: Order People who thought they were Chaos People. But Afghans, like Africans and Russians and the Irish, were Chaos People who knew they were Chaos People, and while this lent the people themselves a good amount of charm, it made their countries berserk, insane. Countries did indeed go insane. Sometimes they went insane and stayed insane. Chaos People’s countries particularly tended to stay insane. Donk miserably pulled off his do-rag, the bloody glue that held the fabric to his skin tearing from his ruined eyebrow so painfully that he had to work to keep the tears from his eyes. “So tell me, Ahktar. What are we supposed to do here?”
Before anyone could answer, Graves had a seizure.
A few hours later Donk was sitting outside the room in which Graves had been all but quarantined. He was petting a stray, wolfish mongrel with filaments of silver hair threaded through its black coat, waiting for the village medicine man to emerge from Graves’s room. This man had claimed he was a doctor and offered up to Donk a large pouch of herbs as evidence. Donk did not have the heart to argue. The compound was quiet but for some small animals fighting or playing along the eaves just above Donk’s head and the occasional overhead roar of a jet. Hassan, sitting a few feet away, watched Donk stroke the dog’s head in revulsion.
“Why,” he asked finally, “do you do that?”
Donk had always taken pity on Central Asian dogs, especially after learning that one could fend off a possible attack by miming the act of picking up a stone, at which the dogs usually turned and ran away. He lowered his lips to the creature’s head and planted upon it a chaste kiss. The dog smelled of oily musk. “Because it’s lonely,” Donk said.
“That is a filthy animal,” Hassan told him. “You should not touch such a filthy animal, Mister Donk.”
Donk chose not to point out that Hassan was, if anything, far dirtier. The boy had spent a night with Donk and Graves in Kunduz. His body odor had been so potent, so overwhelmingly cheesy, that Donk was not able to sleep. Misplaced Muslim piety, he thought with uncharacteristic bitterness.
“You’re right,” Donk said at last. “The dog’s filthy. But so am I. So there we are.”
During the seizure Donk had stuffed his bloody do-rag in Graves’s mouth to keep him from biting off his tongue, even though he knew convulsive people rarely, if ever, bit off their own tongues. It was one of those largely ceremonial things people did in emergencies. Donk had pushed Graves up on the table and held him down. Graves shuddered for a few moments, his eyes filled with awful awareness, his chest heaving like the gills of a suffocating fish. Then, mercifully, he went unconscious. Donk used the rest of his iodined water to try to rehydrate Graves, but he quickly vomited it up. At this General Mohammed had sent for his medicine man.
Donk knew there were at least two kinds of malaria. The less serious strain was stubborn and hard to kill—flu-like symptoms could recur as long as five decades after the initial infection—but it was rarely lethal. The more serious strain quickly turned life-threatening if untreated. He was no longer wondering which strain Graves had contracted. Graves was conscious now—Donk could hear him attempting to reason with the village doctor—but his voice was haggard and dazed.
Donk looked around. Thirty or forty yards away a small group of General Mohammed’s soldiers watched him, their Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. They looked beaten, bullied, violent. Hair-trigger men. Their faces were like shadows. And these were the winners. Donk found himself, suddenly, missing women. Seeing them, staring at them, smelling them. Afghanistan had mailed into Donk’s brain a series of crushingly similar mental postcards: men, men, desert, men, men, men, guns, men, guns, guns, desert, guns, men. One might think that life without women would lead to a simpler, less fraught existence. No worries about hair or odor. Saying whatever you wanted. But one’s eyes tired of men, as one’s nerves certainly tired of guns.
It was not just women, however. Donk missed sex even more. He needed, he admitted, an inordinate amount of sex. Heavy people needed things—hence their heaviness. Sex was a large part of the reason he had been reluctant to leave Chicago to come to Afghanistan. He was having a Guinness Book amount of it with Tina, who was maybe his girlfriend, his first in a long time. As luck would have it, Tina was menstruating the night before he left. They had had sex anyway, in her bathroom, and left bloody foot- and handprints all over the white tile. They Windexed away the blood together. It had not been freaky. It had almost been beautiful, and he loved her. But for him distance was permission, and newness arousal itself. Plane tickets and hotel rooms were like lingerie. He had already slept with an AP reporter in Tashkent. He did not regret it, exactly, because he had every intention of lying about it later. It occurred to him that he had also lied to Graves. About not being haunted. Strangely, he felt bad about that lie. It seemed like something Graves should have known. But Donk had not known where to begin.
A decade ago Donk worked as a staff photographer for a dozen family newspapers peppered throughout central Wisconsin, all somehow owned by the same unmarried man. His life then had been sitting through school-board meetings and upping the wattage of the smiles of local luminaries, drinking three-dollar pitchers of Bud after work and suffering polite rejection from strangers he misjudged as unattractive enough to want to speak to him. That life began to end when the last of five sudden strokes stripped Donk’s father of his mind and sent him off into dementia. Donk was the only one of his siblings who lived within 1,000 miles of Milwaukee, where his father was hospitalized; his mother had long refused to speak to the man. So, alone, Donk set up camp beside his father’s deathbed.
Death was a peculiar thing. Some endured unenviable amounts of firsthand death without its one clearest implication ever occurring to them. Donk had never much thought about his own death before. The prospect had always felt to him like a television show he knew was on channel eleven and started at eight but had never watched and never planned to. Donk stared at the monitors, listened to the hiss of his father’s bed’s mattress as the nurses pistoned it up and down, timed the steady beep whose provenance he did not care to isolate. It was all he could do to keep from thinking that all of it was assembled to provide the man a few last deprived moments of life. Donk realized that even if he were beside his father at the moment his final journey began, the man would still die alone, as Donk would die alone, as we all died alone. Horribly, doubly alone, for just as no one went with us, no one greeted us when it was over.
Nurses found him weeping in the hospital’s cafeteria. When his father’s doctor brought some final forms for Donk to fill out, she slipped into his catatonic hand a small packet of diazepam. The nervous breakdown Donk expected. The estrangement from his surviving family—who could not understand his “sudden obsession” with dying—he expected. Quitting his job and investing his small inheritance he expected. Becoming a freelance combat photographer he did not. People who were not correspondents laughed when Donk told the story, which he often did. It sounded so unbelievable. But people were not born combat photographers any more than they were born lawyers. One day you were waiting tables, the next you were in law school. One day you were heartbroken and megalomaniacal, the next you were faxing visa requests to embassies using stolen letterhead. Only Tajikistan’s had answered him. If Tajikistan’s embassy wondered why the Waukesha Freeman felt it needed a photographer in Dushanbe, it did not share that curiosity with Donk. He was awarded his first visa to his first war, a genuine hot war, a civil war. He told everyone he met in Dushanbe that he was “stringing,” even though he was not sure what that word really entailed. In Tajikistan he saw his first gunshot wound, his first dead baby. He learned that combat photographers either “spooked” or did not. To his surprise, Donk did not. At least, he spooked no more than he had the afternoon he watched his father burp, sigh, and stop breathing. The photo of the gunned-down old woman, taken after five months and $3,000 of squandered savings, led to Donk’s covering the reconciliation trials in Rwanda for one of India’s biggest dailies. There he learned that he no longer had much patience for American minorities’ claims of oppression. Rwanda led to Jerusalem, shortly after the intifada. There he learned of the subterranean connections world media outlets had expertly tunneled beneath continents of human misery, and how often you passed the same faces when traveling through them. Jerusalem led to Dagestan, where he spent a day with a Tatar Muslim warlord whose nom de guerre was Hitler and who made an awkward pass at Donk when they were alone. He learned that of all the countries in the world America was most hesitant to publish graphic “bang-bang” photos. He learned that arms and cocaine were the world’s second and third most profitable exports, after human sex slaves. He learned how to shop for a KEVLAR vest. He learned how to take a good picture while running. He learned, when all else failed, to follow refugees. And he learned that the worse and more ugly the reality around him, the more impervious to it and better he felt, the more he forgot his father. He learned that the only thing that frightened him, truly frightened him, was quiet, because he knew death was quiet, the longest quiet. He learned that the persona that came with this strange fearlessness was able to win, if only for a night, a certain kind of troubled heart belonging to certain kind of woman more worldly than Donk had any previous right to expect, and he learned that he was the type of man to abuse this ability.
His brother and sister called him a fear addict, a desperate idiot on a danger bender. He had never “dealt” with their father’s death, they claimed. Donk’s brother, Jason, was a first-team whiskey addict (three interventions and counting: “What, this again?” he had asked, after the most recent). His sister, Marie, lived in Anchorage, too far away to provide Donk with any idea of what, exactly, she was into. Judging from her insensate three a.m. phone calls, it was high-impact. Who were they to speak of fear, of “dealing with the natural process” of death? Death was actually the least natural thing Donk could imagine, involving, as it did, not living. Death’s stature as a physiological event did not mean it was natural. The trapped mink does not accept its own death; it chews off its leg. No, death was something else, categoryless and dreadful, something to be fought off, defied, spat upon. Human Conflict, he thought. Death was the unappeasable aggressor. And he stroked the dog’s small head.
The medicine man stepped from Graves’s room. Without consulting him Donk rushed inside. It was a little past eleven in the morning now, the light in Graves’s room brighter than he expected. Graves was supine on a thick mass of blankets with another, thinner blanket mostly covering him. He seemed very still. His eyes were dry. Though he did not look at Donk, he raised his hand in brief acknowledgment. Donk crouched next to Graves’s makeshift bed and said nothing. Then, on an impulse, he took Graves’s hand and held it crossways in his own, as though hoping to offer him some mysterious transfer of strength.
“Did you once think,” Graves asked, “about how dirty dying is? I’m lying here in my own shit. You can smell it, can’t you? I should really do something about this.” He shifted positions, and then Donk could smell Graves’s shit, thin and sour and soupy. In response Donk squeezed Graves’s hand. “In England,” Graves went on, wincing briefly, “I think something like eighty percent of all deaths now take place in hospitals. I watched my mother and my father die in hospitals. They went quietly. It was lovely, in its way. But fifty years ago only forty percent of the English population died in hospitals. We sequester the dying, you see. Because it is ugly, it is dirty. I think we don’t want to know that. We want to keep that little truth hidden away. But think a moment about how most people have died, Duncan. They’ve died in places just like this. So if I’m going to die here, I’m joining legions. For some reason this makes me happy.” Graves’s head rolled an inch on its pillow and, for the first time, he looked at Donk.
Donk stared back at Graves, the connection allowing him to locate the voice, as faraway as a quasar, in his mind. “You’re not going to die.”
Graves smiled. “Old men have to die. The world grows moldy, otherwise.”
Graves, Donk knew, was forty. His sympathy left him in one brash gust. “What did the doctor say?”
“Oh, you mean St. John’s Wort, M.D.? Hell if I know. He all but sprinkled me with voodoo dust. Duncan, calm down. I’m either going to make it through this or I won’t. I’m not upset. I just have to wait.” He closed his eyes. “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, / It seems to me most strange that men should fear; / Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come.’ That Shakespeare. Preternatural, isn’t it? Any occasion one can think of, and there he is.”
Donk knew he could barely quote Shakespeare if he were spotted “To be” and “not to be.” In a low voice he said, “You are going to die, Graves, if you’ve already convinced yourself you’re going to die.”
Donk let go of his hand. “It’s not a fucking puzzle.”
“Getting upset, Duncan, isn’t going to help me.”
“Then what is going to help you?”
“Medicine. Medicine they don’t have here.”
“Where?” Donk asked. “Where do I go?”
Graves looked at him again. Suddenly Donk saw the fear just below the flat blue composure of Graves’s eyes, a stern, dignified terror barricaded so completely inside of him it barely recognized itself. Graves’s lips were shaking. “Jesus, Duncan. I—you—you could rent that chap Ahktar’s Jeep. You could—”
With that Donk rushed out, collared Hassan, and went to find General Mohammed and Ahktar. Seven hundred dollars was hidden beneath the insole of Donk’s boot. This would be enough, he hoped, for a safety deposit on the Jeep. He would drive to Mazar with Hassan. He would walk into UNICEF’s office or Doctors Without Borders or find Lieutenant Marty and he would come back here. Graves was too sick to travel, and if they broke down again or were stopped—it was too complicated. That was the one truly upsetting thing about Human Conflict. It made everything far too complicated. Donk found General Mo